The director Suseenthiran’s career is something like that line from Forrest Gump about life being like a box of chocolates… You never know what you’re gonna get. Sometimes you’ll get a delectable Aadhalal Kadhal Seiveer. Sometimes you’ll get a Jeeva, half good, half bad-taste-in-the-mouth. And sometimes, there’s a Paayum Puli. This isn’t something made by the man who made Aadhalal Kadhal Seiveer and had you reaching for A-words. (Artist? Auteur?) This is the work of someone who kept muttering to himself, “B Centre, C Centre, B Centre, C Centre…” and “Maybe I’ll get the hero at this point to place his hands on the heroine’s creamy hip.”
The first half is awful, a shockingly cynical capitulation to formulaic elements. First, there’s that name from a Rajini hit. Why do they do this? Do they think people with fond memories of the older film will flock to this one? Do they think it’s a charm, that by merely using the name of a superstar film some of that super-luck will rub off on you? Twenty years from now, will aspiring superstars appear in films named Baba and Muthu? Then we have the hero introduction scene, an action scene where the cop Jayaseelan (Vishal) sends someone flying into orbit. But wait, it’s not an action scene. It’s just that one punch, that one guy. And why? Because he took a biscuit from a little girl without asking her. Are you serious, Suseenthiran? And let’s look at the heroine’s entry, in a scene where she’s scared of crossing the road. Actually, let’s not look at it. Kajal Aggarwal plays this loosu ponnu as a bewildered creature – with good reason. When she asked what her character was like, the answer was probably, “You smile at little girls at traffic lights.”
The comedy track, meanwhile, is handled by Soori. He plays a drunk who keeps getting into trouble with his wife. He rings the doorbell and a woman opens the door and it turns out she’s the neighbour’s wife – that sort of thing. The theatre I saw the film in had English subtitles that offered way more fun, especially during the songs. Yaar indha muyalkutty / Un paer enna muyalkutty became “Who is this beautiful bunny / What is your name, honey?” Naan soodaana Rohini / Kai theendaatha maangani became “I am a lass, hot and lush / A mango ripe to refresh.” Marudha-kaari vaadi / Manasukkulla poadi became “Lovely girl from Madurai city / Fill me with your felicity.” And the title song became “Bestial beast / To say the least.” Each one of these songs is horribly placed, but I found myself salivating for them. I wanted them to fill me with their felicity, to say the least.
Paayum Puli is one of those films where you hear about the plot and you slap your forehead and go Wow! – until you actually see the movie. The plot, such as it is, depends on a twist and a villain who cannot be named. There’s so much potential here, so many primal emotions. This could have been an operatic thriller straddling the personal, the professional, the political. But all it wants to be is a B-Centre, C-Centre hit. Does Suseenthiran think those audiences are dumb? Would the villain himself go to collect ransom monies instead of sending underlings? The writing is wretched. Look at the stretch around a young cop named Albert (Harish Uthaman). We see him with his loving parents. We see him wave to the loving girl-next-door, who we learn is his loving fiancée. And I thought: Okay, he’s going to die. It’s the cheapest trick in the book to get an audience to sympathise with a character – and it’s cheapened further when he dies in the very next scene. Or consider the random stretch that gives us an insight into the villain’s past. Why not build up to this flashback and save these revelations for a point where they’d have more impact?
The handful of good things? I liked the casting of Samuthirakani as Vishal’s older brother – they look like siblings, a fact that becomes more significant as the film goes on. Some of the investigative portions are nicely done, and a long chase on foot is staged quite effectively. And even in his worst films, Suseenthiran cannot stop being interesting. As in Pandiya Naadu, the hero’s father, too, begins to assume an important role – hence the stage for the final conflict. It’s, finally, a domestic squabble, and it’s only right it takes place at home. There are hints that Paayum Puli was, at some point, a richly textured drama before it transmogrified into an empty star vehicle. We see rare shades in politicians and businessmen. The politicians are unscrupulous, yes, and that’s typical of Tamil cinema – but the narrative choices render these characters tragic instead of simply evil. Imagine wanting to do good to such an extent that you end up becoming bad. And the businessmen in this story – they end up the targets of pay-up-or-die threats – are treated with extraordinary empathy. One of them says that they may appear rich, but the key word is appear. The reality is that they are caught in a vicious cycle of heavy debts and exorbitant interest rates. Tamil cinema is so pro-poor, that it was a bit of a shock to see a big commercial film tell us that the rich aren’t just pizza- and burger-eaters, they are people too.
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